For all the talk about the three-way battle for the starting quarterback position, it was a sophomore battling for the backup running back position that caught the eye of most fans during Saturday's annual Blue/White Spring Game.
Behind an offensive line that features four new starters, the Kentucky ground game rushed for 307 yards and two touchdowns in front of approximately 9,000 fans at Commonwealth Stadium.
Sophomore Donald Russell, one of two tailbacks vying for the running back position behind senior Derrick Locke, carried the ball nine times Saturday for 118 yards and two touchdowns in leading the offense (Blue team) to a 60-25 win over the defense (White team).
The offense vs. defense scrimmage scoring system didn't tell the full story of Saturday's game, as the defensive line put pressure on the quarterbacks all afternoon, but Phillips was pleased with what he saw on both sides of the ball.
"In the scrimmage today, I liked the competition," Phillips said. "Some of you got with the players and talked about the scoring system, but I think it is fair. We have to get the defense off of the field. We weren't very good last year on third downs and getting off the field. That means third-and-1, third-and-2 and even third-and-longs weren't very good. That has been a huge emphasis to get off the field. I think the offense did a good job moving the ball. There were some big plays, but the offense didn't get the ball in the end zone enough, especially our number 'ones (first team).' I thought the 'twos' (second team) did a good job getting into the end zone and we made some big plays with our running backs."
Russell did most of his damage on a 70-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, all but icing the game at 47-24. The sophomore tailback out of West Palm Beach, Fla., took the initial handoff out left before busting through a seam 70 yards untouched.
"I opened it up and all I saw was all daylight," Russell said. "I just took it from there."
Redshirt freshman Jonathan George, who redshirted last season with an injury, added 45 yards on the ground and sophomore CoShik Williams tallied 85 yards, but it was Russell who shined brightest on the final day of spring practice.
"Donald Russell continues to plead his case," Phillips said. "He's building a nice little résumé in why he should be the second-team running back. I was telling Jonathan George, No. 23 is making a case for himself. You better start making one for yourself also."
The headline entering the game, as it has been throughout the spring, was the three-man race at quarterback. Senior Mike Hartline was thought to be the frontrunner after a solid spring - and he did nothing to squash that notion Saturday after throwing for 124 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-24 passing - but Phillips said the quarterback race will continue through the summer and likely into August.
"I always want to stand behind the quarterbacks and see how they handle themselves in the huddle and I thought all of them commanded respect when they got in the huddle and also managed the line of scrimmage," Phillips said. "The thing I liked about all three of them is they were able to get themselves out of trouble with their feet, with their legs."
Hartline started the day with the "ones" and was moving the ball down the field until he threw back into pressure on a third-and-2 from the 34-yard line. Senior linebacker Danny Trevathan, who drew positive reviews from Phillips for his ability to fly to the ball Saturday, intercepted the pass to give the White six points under the scrimmage scoring system.
Hartline redeemed himself three drives later at the end of the first quarter. The 6-foot-6, 206-pound quarterback out of Canton, Ohio, rolled right on second-and-15 and hit sophomore E.J. Fields on a fade route in the end zone for the first touchdown of the game. The score gave the Blue a 13-7 lead.
"I thought I made some really good plays," said Hartline, who was also under center for the game's final touchdown drive, capped by an 8-yard scoring scamper up the middle by Russell. "The biggest thing I tried to do was just keep drives alive, keep getting first downs (and) keep them moving. There were a couple of three-and-outs, but overall I drove the ball pretty well and my offense did pretty good every time of converting third downs. There were just little throws that I need to make, a few throws that got away, but we need to keep our composure and technique all the way down the field."
Redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski (6-of-13 for 37 yards), who sat out in 2009 while he recovered from a shoulder injury he suffered in high school, started strong on the day. Mossakowski scrambled 18 yards on his very first play and later connected with junior wide receiver Matt Roark for 16 yards. The offense eventually settled for a 34-yard field goal from junior Ryan Tydlacka to go up 8-6.
Last year's second-half starter and wildcard in the quarterback race, sophomore Morgan Newton, started slow but played well late in the second half. His drive just before halftime epitomized both the potential and inexperience he and Mossakowski are trying to balance.
Newton started the drive with a 41-yard bomb to senior wide receiver Chris Matthews, the longest pass play of the day. A few plays later, with just seconds left on the clock, Newton showcased his feet with a brilliant scramble to elude two tacklers before firing a 19-yard dart to senior wide receiver Gene McCaskill.
The play appeared to set up a touchdown late in the second quarter, but junior safety Winston Guy picked off an underthrown 2-yard pass by Newton to end the first half. The six-point pick by Guy cut the offense's lead to 26-21 entering the half.
Still, Newton (6-of-12 for 92 yards) and Mossakowksi have closed the gap on Hartline, making for an even more interesting summer as the UK football team heads into the 2010 offseason.
"I'm not disappointed (with not naming a starter)," Phillips said. "The reason I'm not disappointed is because I think we can win with all three of those guys. I really do."
A Williams-led drive to start the third quarter was capped off with a 2-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Ryan Phillippi to junior tight end Gabe Correll. Russell's 65-yard touchdown run increased the offense's lead to 45-24 before the third quarter ended at 47-24.
A 28-yard field goal by sophomore Pat Simmons started the fourth quarter and Russell scored again in the fourth with 7:44 left in the game. A pair of first downs by the Blue team and a defensive stop by the White team brought the game's final score to 60-25.
As lopsided as the scoreboard indicated the game was, the defense had its share of highlights. Redshirt freshman Mister Cobble, who at 308 pounds already looks the part of a starting Southeastern Conference defensive tackle, continually brought pressure up the middle.
Sophomore linebacker Ridge Wilson led the defense with six tackles and redshirt freshman linebacker Ryan Mosby added a sack, but it was Trevathan (four tackles, a sack and an interception) who impressed Phillips the most because of his leadership.
"You saw Danny Trevathan showing up all over the field," Phillips said. "I've been pressing Danny Trevathan to be a leader. Sometimes guys don't think they're leaders. I think Danny has been sitting in the background and watching Sam Maxwell and Micah Johnson to lead, and I'm not sure if he sees himself as a leader. We expect Danny Trevathan to be a leader of this defense and he showed it today with the way he played."
The team will now head into Phillips' first offseason before summer practice in early August. UK's first game of the 2010 season will take place Sept. 4 at Louisville.
Asked what he was looking for from his team in the offseason, Phillips said he wanted his players to stay out of the headlines and continue to develop under "Operation Win."
"We've been in the hunt before in the SEC East," Phillips said. "We expect to be in there longer."